|For Many Victims of Clergy Abuse, the Scars Are Now Burning
By Michael Levenson
April 14, 2008
When Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass on Boston Common on Oct. 1, 1979, Robert Costello was there. He was 18, president of the Catholic Youth Organization at St. Theresa of Avila parish in West Roxbury, and a freshman at Boston College. Praying in the rain with 400,000 believers, he watched as his friend, who was dying of cancer, took Communion from the pope's hand.
Now, almost 29 years later, Costello is anticipating another pope's visit. Only this time, he is going to protest, not pray. A victim of sexual abuse by a priest who was supposed to teach his Boy Scout troop to swim, Costello will travel from Boston to New York City Friday to read aloud the names of fellow victims, while Benedict XVI addresses the United Nations.
"I don't owe him the courtesy of kissing his ring, because they certainly didn't do me the courtesy of stopping this abuse when it happened," said Costello, a 46-year-old Norwood resident who, in 1989, came to terms with the abuse he said he suffered between the ages of 10 and 14.
For many victims of clergy sexual abuse, Benedict's visit to New York and Washington revives the rage, powerlessness, and despair of having had their faith broken and their abuse unacknowledged for decades. Many say the pope has not done enough to prevent abuse and that it is still occurring. They see Benedict's decision to bypass Boston, the epicenter of the crisis, as willful disregard for the problem.
"It's just the sort of thing where I hear about it, and I turn away in disgust," said Peter Pollard, 56, who said he was molested in the 1960s by a priest in Marblehead and who works for an organization in Amherst dedicated to stopping abuse.
"It's not something I have interest in or want to have interest in. I feel pretty dismissive and disdainful of the pope and his office and his past behavior."
Some Catholics, however, hope that Benedict's visit will inaugurate an era of openness between victims and the Vatican. Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the pope's US ambassador, has told USA Today that Benedict plans to address the abuse crisis several times.
Sambi has also told the National Catholic Reporter that a meeting with victims is "within the field of possibility, but I cannot confirm anything."
The main national organization representing victims, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, has heard nothing from the Vatican or its representatives, despite requesting a meeting with the pope, according to its national director, David Clohessy.
"He has a huge opportunity here, and if he misses that opportunity, he will not get it back," said Gary M. Bergeron, a Salem, N.H., resident whose book, "Don't Call Me A Victim," chronicles the alleged sexual abuse by priests of his father, his brother, and himself. Bergeron, his father, and another victim sought unsuccessfully to tell their stories to John Paul II at the Vatican in 2003.
"It's an opportunity for him to walk through that door that we pushed against and pushed against and pushed against for decades," Bergeron, 45, said in his office, where a sign on the bookshelf reads, "Adversity Introduces A Man to Himself." "It's open. Just walk through it."
Susan Renehan, 59, a single mother in Southbridge, grew up a devout Catholic in suburban New Jersey. As a girl of 8, she willingly gave up chocolate for Lent, and read books about priests serving in leper colonies and priests with stigmata.
"I had this very deep love of the Church and the pope," she said. "It was very deep in the fabric."
Then, she said, a priest repeatedly molested her when she was in the seventh and eighth grade, and she was kicked out of Catholic school for misbehaving. She has never gone back to church, she said.
Now, thinking about the pope in New York makes her angry.
"If anything, I'd go down and protest," Renehan said. "But I'll probably just tune it out . . . Until the pope steps up to the plate and starts being responsible for the child abuse and rape, then he has no credibility. And that the Catholics aren't demanding that he be held accountable is just as criminal as his ignoring the issue."
Costello struggled for years with depression, alcohol abuse, and suicidal feelings. He credits therapy for helping him recover. In 1995, when John Paul II visited Washington, Costello wrote a letter to the pope, telling him the story of his abuse and inviting him to his garden to talk.
But he never heard back, he said.
Costello said that reading aloud the names of victims feels like a more fitting response to this pope's visit.
"I just didn't want them to be forgotten amidst all the pomp and circumstance," he said.
The disillusionment is painful for many. Pollard, who said his molestation by the Rev. George Rosenkranz led him to become an advocate for abused children, recalled the awe he felt as a child when the pope came to the United States.
"The pope felt like God's representative on earth," Pollard said. "It was very exciting and very meaningful and very moving. This just feels like they have trivialized the Church and the pope, and that feels like a big loss.
"It's done, for me. It's not something that I am experiencing today as a new loss. That happened a long time ago."
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